“You can’t go to the Middle East now!” “Won’t your family be scared?” “What about liability insurance for all those volunteers?”

Last year, archaeology aficionados heard these sentiments from family, friends and colleagues. The tense standoff between Israelis and Palestinians created enough uncertainty that many directors postponed their excavations.

Archaeologists mount excavations in the Middle East for many reasons: pressing research agendas, awareness that many places in Israel and Jordan are safe most of the time, academic requirements that faculty be engaged in their fields—and the personal pleasure of doing what they really like during the summer. But in 2002 the obstacles to excavating seemed daunting.

I was a grateful recipient of a fellowship that placed me in Amman, Jordan for six months before the beginning of our excavation season last year. Like all digs in the Middle East, our excavation at the Madaba Plains Project—`Umayri was jeopardized by the perception of danger that staff and potential volunteers shared, even though Jordan was entirely safe throughout my stay.

Nevertheless, our excavation team in 2002 was only half its normal size. We had won a National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) grant, thanks to Dr. Gloria London, to bring 25 secondary-school teachers to the dig—but that was postponed out of concern that political tensions in the region would sour the teachers’ experience.

But in the end, our 36 participants were remarkably successful. Our various hosts (at the vocational college where we boarded, at the Department of Antiquities and in a multitude of homes and Bedouin tents throughout the country) showed us their usual hospitality. We never felt in danger. Though Jordanians are frustrated by U.S. policy in the Middle East, they displayed consistently positive attitudes and behavior toward Americans in Jordan.

How did other archaeological digs in Israel and Jordan fare in 2002? BAR asked me to find out. I sent a questionnaire to 46 American, Canadian, European and Israeli dig directors about their excavations (25 in Israel, 21 in Jordan). I collected the names from last year’s BAR digs guide, the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem and the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, and added a few informal contacts. My sincere thanks to the 27 dig directors who responded (13 with digs in Israel, 14 in Jordan).

Of the 25 directors I contacted who had excavations in Israel, 16 canceled their dig seasons, leaving only nine in the field, but only four of the 21 Jordanian digs had been canceled. Directors cited five reasons for canceling: institutional liability and insurance issues; the possibility of a war with Iraq and other regional political issues; problems enlisting volunteers; resistance of family and lack of sufficient funding.

Those who canceled expressed a wide range of opinions about their decisions. “I think that it was prudent not to take any risks at all,” Ron Tappy (Zayit, Israel) said. “I have a long-term strategy for our project, and I believe that a single tragedy during a forced season would do more damage to our long-term goals than taking one season off.” Gloria London noted, “It would have caused my family needless worry for six weeks and that seemed unfair.” But some had more mixed feelings: “Institutionally it was the responsible and most prudent decision to take,” Wendi Chiarbos (Bethsaida, Jordan) wrote, adding: “Personally I am ambivalent [because] in 13 years of leading students to our site we have had no problems.”

Directors who did go into the field last summer did not regard the area as dangerous, as John Oleson (Humayma, Jordan) noted: “There did not seem [to be] any real or present danger.”

Another frequently reported reason for excavating was the research and funding agenda of their projects: “We had planned to run a field school, and interest remained very high among our students,” wrote Tim Harrison (Madaba, Jordan). Tim also said: “There were a number of pressing research objectives that required fieldwork, which we were reluctant to postpone.” One director summed it up succinctly: “Had license and funding.”

These directors, 17 of whom (out of 26 respondents) excavated in Jordan, were far happier with their choice than their non-digging colleagues. Tom Levy (Jabal Hamrat Fidan) noted: “Our presence in the village of Quraiqra (Jordan) for three months adds a great deal of income to the area and I’m happy to be here.” Zbigniew Fiema (Jabal Haroun) wrote: “Despite the unstable and uncertain situation in the entire region, the working conditions in Jordan (Petra area) were perfectly safe and the attitude of the local population friendly.”

The directors unanimously praised the caliber of the dig participants who came. “Virtually everyone was serious about archaeology; they really wanted to be there,” wrote one. And nobody thought the participants’ attitudes about being on the dig had been affected by general fears related to the regional political situation. Wrote Kenneth Holum (Caesarea-Maritima, Israel): “We experienced little fear or apprehension, though most did not travel much, and did not go to Jerusalem.”

All of the directors thought the excavation results were unaffected by general fears about the region. Ted Banning’s (Wadi Ziqlab, Jordan) comment was typical: “We had a very productive field season, in some ways more productive than usual, as everyone was focused on work since it was inadvisable to go out too much.”

Both sets of directors—those who had canceled and those who had excavated—had the same advice for potential volunteers. They urged volunteers to educate themselves about the historical and cultural setting of the current conflict. “This is no time to be an ‘ugly American,’” one wrote.

The bottom line is that there will be no one right decision for everyone who wants to excavate until the perennial conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is resolved. For now, each director and institution must weigh the need to dig against the possibility of danger. Meanwhile, the tenacious breed known as archaeologists can only hope that peace will come soon, so that these kinds of uncertainties can be purged from the ongoing quest to wring new knowledge of the past from the soil.